President Obama has reportedly told White House aides that he wants a “new Middle East policy” — one that urges beleaguered allies threatened by popular rebellions to “enact reforms that would satisfy the popular craving for change while preserving valuable partnerships on crucial U.S. interests, from soil security to counter-terrorism and containing Iran.”
But there’s not much “new” there, to be frank: The Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, has consistently urged Arab allies to make reforms, while prioritizing U.S. regional concerns such as oil, counterterrorism, confronting Iran and protecting Israel. What is new, of course, is the fear that Washington’s influence in the Middle East, which had already been waning steadily in recent years, is tied almost exclusively to regimes that are looking a lot more like relics of the past than stewards of the future.
And there may be no easy way for the U.S. to switch horses carrying its baggage of priorities, or even to shape any emerging democratic order to meet its own strategic requirements. Indeed, the reason Washington is so wedded to autocratic regimes of dwindling legitimacy and authority in the Arab world is the fact that not all U.S. priorities are shared by the Arab public.
No country pumping oil is going to resist the urge to sell it on world markets, so a regime change won’t likely endanger energy supplies. And countries that face a problem of extremist terrorism directed at their own populations will likely cooperate on that front – while the logic of deterrence and consequences can persuade others to prevent their territory being used to stage terror attacks on third countries.
But the idea that the newly empowered Arab public is going to produce governments that will march in lockstep with the U.S. on issues such as Iran and Israel is simply fanciful. The Bush and Obama Administrations may have convinced themselves that they were leading an alliance of Israel and Arab countries in confronting Iran, but recent events have made clear that those Arab leaders speak largely for themselves rather than for their citizens. And the bad news for Washington is that the Arab citizenry simply doesn’t share its view of Iran as a some sort of regional menace.
The University of Maryland’s authoritative annual survey of Arab public opinion released last fall included the astonishing finding that 57% of respondents believed that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon would have a positive impact on the region, while a further 20% said such a development “would not matter”. Just 20% answered that Iran should be pressured to stop its nuclear program, compared with 77% who said Iran “has a right to its nuclear program”.
And it’s not just the way the Arab public sees Iran that’s the problem; it’s the way they see the United States. Almost two thirds of respondents were discouraged by Obama’s Middle East policy, with 61% choosing his efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the most disappointing feature. Only 1% who saw Obama’s efforts at spreading democracy as the biggest disappointment.
When asked what two things the US could do to improve its image in the Arab world, top of the list was an Israel-Palestinian peace agreement, with withdrawal from Iraq narrowly beating “stopping aid to Israel” into second place. Just 13% listed “doing more to promote democracy”
Tunisians and Egyptians have not overthrown their regimes — and Algerians, Moroccans, Libyans, Bahrainis, Omanis, Saudis and others are not challenging theirs — because of how they see the U.S. or Iran or Israel and the Palestinians. They are fighting for their rights as citizens, to take charge of their countries’ destinies and ensure that their government’s domestic and foreign policies reflect the popular will. There’s scant evidence to suggest that more democratic Middle Eastern governments are going to continue to follow the U.S. lead on issues relating to Iran and Israel. On the contrary, neighborhood examples such as Turkey and Iraq demonstrate that democratic governments in the region are more willing to differ sharply with the U.S. on regional policy; are cooler towards Israel; and seek rapprochement with Iran. The fact that Cairo’s post-Mubarak military rulers last week allowed two Iranian warships to transit the Suez Canal en route to Syria — much to Israel’s chagrin — suggests that a more democratic Egypt is more likely to try and normalize relations with Iran than to maintain Mubarak’s role in the U.S. strategy of containing Tehran.
Both Turkey nor Iraq have rejected the idea that they’re forced to choose between rival camps in a regional Cold War pitting allies of the U.S. against those of Iran. Both countries seek normal relations with both Washington and Tehran. And it’s a relatively safe bet that democratic governments in other Arab countries will do the same.